Bioscience research has been a part of LANL since the Manhattan Project
The Laboratory’s interest in biosciences dates from its very early days, when the Atomic Energy Commission established Health Research Units in the wartime laboratories to investigate the effects of radiation on living organisms. As biological research became more sophisticated, the early whole-animal studies gave way to studies at the cellular and molecular levels. Meanwhile, computing pioneers at the Laboratory were exploring whether computers could help unravel the relationships between the molecular codes in DNA and proteins. In the 1960s and early 1970s, these two research paths merged, and the basic methods for computer manipulation and analysis of DNA sequences were developed. These efforts eventually led to the establishment at Los Alamos of GenBank, the national genetic-sequence database, now managed through the National Institutes of Health.
The Laboratory’s multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving has led to many important advances in biosciences research, which in turn has opened the door to the Laboratory’s involvement with a variety of major national and international life sciences research projects. For example, Los Alamos is the birthplace of the flow cytometer, an instrument developed to analyze and sort intact cells and whole chromosomes. (Commercial flow cytometers are now ubiquitous in clinical hospital and medical research laboratories.)
As the effects of high-dose radiation became better understood, Los Alamos was charged with investigating health problems associated with nonnuclear sources of energy. The Laboratory turned to investigating the more subtle—and perhaps more insidious—effects of low-dose radiation and chemical exposure. Much of this work focused on investigating the structure and function of mammalian chromosomes, including the mechanisms involved in the differential regulation of gene expression, with the goal of revealing how radiation and chemical exposure relate to cancer and other long-term health problems. The deeper the researchers probed, the more biological complexity they uncovered, and the potential benefits of identifying all human genes became clear. Thus the seeds for the Human Genome Project were sown. Los Alamos was one of the founding institutions of the DOE’s Joint Genome Institute and continues its active involvement with the Human Genome Project.
The Laboratory’s expertise in molecular DNA studies, computer analyses, and instrument and database development—developed over the past six decades—is now being applied to a variety of problems facing the nation. For example, a new type of flow cytometer analyzes tiny fragments of DNA, which is useful for “fingerprinting” potential biological threat agents, and molecular techniques are combined with computer analyses to track the lineages the different threat agents. In addition, genetic information is used to help determine protein structures for use in improving medicines, and studies of metabolites and microbes pave the way toward optimizing biofuel production.
Bioscience at the service of national security
Bioscience Division serves the nation by developing science and technology to reduce natural and deliberate threats to human populations and the environment from biological, chemical, and radiological agents